Sullivan, Ann C. Permission to Doubt: One Woman’s Journey into a Thinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. Paperback. 173 pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-4366-4.
Ann Sullivan’s Permission to Doubt might best be described as a personal memoir, reflection, and self-help book that dabbles in apologetics and hermeneutics. Fairly effective on the personal sharing and reflection side, the book offers standard fare on the self-help side, is fairly superficial and cursory on the apologetics side, and is often troubling on the hermeneutical side. The book’s ostensible purpose is to get readers to accept and explore their doubts, discern their doubts’ types (spiritual, intellectual, emotional), and effectively deal with them (working through or seeking treatment for them, as appropriate). These might be laudable ends, particularly if one could speak of “owning” or “admitting” one’s doubts rather than of “accepting” them or of “giving oneself permission” to doubt. Sullivan’s method of pursing these ends, however, does not seem particularly praiseworthy or deserving of imitation. On balance, the book does not strike me as something Bible-believers need or would benefit from and, in spite of having been provided a free copy for review purposes, I cannot recommend it. (In fact, the book has made me tentatively decide to decline all future offers of review copies from Kregel. Time seems better spent reading solid Bible-believing works of the past, such as those reprinted and offered free of charge by Chapel Library.)
While I cannot recommend the text, I can think of a few groups that might find Permission to Doubt worth reading: (1) personal acquaintances of Sullivan who want to show their support; (2) noncommittal professing Christians who prefer a minimum of required doctrinal beliefs, who like to be free to “interpret” Scripture in the broadest possible variety of ways, and who want these preferences affirmed; and (3) persons who happen to have personal experiences similar to Sullivan’s (past experience with an anxiety disorder, being raised Christian but spending much of adult life doubting and finally committing to a minimal set of “essential” beliefs, and so on) and who like reading the stories of persons with backgrounds resembling their own. I suppose an additional group, (4) women with a bias in favor of anything taught by other women, could be included, but I remain hopeful that such a group is more legendary than real.
Beyond these groups, there might be isolated individuals who would find portions of the book worthwhile. If you believe your doubts may be due to a disorder in your brain chemistry, you might welcome encouragement by the book’s self-help side to take antidepressants (assuming you haven’t read Kirsch’s The Emperor’s New Drugs or find it unpersuasive, and assuming you don’t fear such medications might make you feel at ease with beliefs and behaviors the Holy Spirit wants you to find uncomfortable). If you think that dismissing as unimportant doctrines you’re unsure about is one good way to deal with doubts, you might find the book’s hermeneutical side appealing (this might, in fact, make you part of group 2 in the preceding paragraph). If you feel God’s own words in Scripture have less persuasive force than theistic proofs, historical research, and your own reasoning, but you’ve yet to read anything at all about apologetics, you might find the book’s apologetics side agreeable, though too cursory to actually persuade you of anything. If hearing others’ personal stories of doubt tends to allay your own doubts (or at least make you more comfortable with them, if you think your doubts are something it’s good to become comfortable with), then you might like Sullivan’s personal sharing and reflection.
Were the book only a story of personal difficulties and doubts and eventual recovery, Sullivan’s story might well merit recommendation. A woman who suffers thirteen years from panic attacks brought on by an undiagnosed heart condition (18) who, after a long “dark night of the soul” her own physiology pushed her into, ends up a successful speaker at women’s conferences and leader of a large women’s ministry at her church: this is Hallmark movie material. Sullivan, however, has taken it upon herself to teach, and that makes the substance of her teaching, and the presuppositions and attitudes guiding her approach, the necessary central focus of any assessment of the book’s value.
Before exploring the “troubling” aspects of the text that prevent me from recommending it (or, rather, one troubling aspect that well illustrates what I find most unsatisfactory in Sullivan’s approach), I should at least note what the division between spiritual, intellectual, and emotional types of doubt is all about, since the book is structured around this division.
What Sullivan labels “spiritual doubt” is, in the terms Reformed Bible-believers would use, the doubt that results from innate human depravity. Sullivan opts for the following description: “the discomfort that surfaces because of the inability for good and evil to comfortably coexist” (34). One’s sinful choices interfere with one’s ability to believe the truth that runs contrary to them, resulting in doubt. As suits the Thomistic and evidentialist slant of her apologetic preferences, Sullivan does not question the sincerity of intellectual doubts. Intellectual doubt, in Sullivan’s way of thinking, asks honest questions that must be resolved by factual information and rational argument. The final sort of doubt, emotional, is a feeling of uncertainty produced by the negative emotional state accompanying suffering and difficulty, disease, or whatever. Each type of doubt, Sullivan believes, requires a different sort of handling. The book’s self-help side has most to say about dealing with (or treating, or perhaps just waiting out) emotional doubt; Sullivan’s sharing and reflection also have relevance. The book’s apologetics side addresses (in cursory fashion) intellectual doubt. (Her apologetics discussion also makes reference to Pascal’s Wager. I would note, since Sullivan’s presentation does not, that, properly understood, Pascal’s Wager is more relevant to spiritual or emotional than to intellectual doubt. As a “proof” or “evidence” of God’s existence, Pascal’s Wager is, of course, fallacious. That a belief has pragmatic benefits does not make it any more likely than not to be true. As a way to probe human motivations and to prompt commitment to what one already knows or believes or suspects is true, however, Pascal’s Wager has great value.) Sullivan deals with spiritual doubts mainly through the self-reflection and sharing and the hermeneutical sides of the text; while her beliefs in prayer, the need to seek greater closeness to God, and the need to find guidance in Scripture are (broadly speaking) on target, her handling of Scripture is often troubling, carrying with it attitudes and assumptions that reduce Scripture’s ability to provide sure guidance by portraying full submission to all that it says on every topic that it covers as unnecessary or even objectionable.
Reformed Bible-believers, as it happens, would see spiritual doubt as lying behind most or all apparently intellectual and emotional doubts, and would see study and submission to Scripture, prayer, and similar “means of grace” (as some like to put it) as the key curatives for every “kind” of doubt. The different “types” of doubt are, to this way of thinking, just different ways that fundamental depravity, human rebellion against God (and so against his authoritative Word), expresses itself. This view would emphasize that the fact that God continues to reach out to his elect who doubt, that he does not punish them for being “of little faith,” does not make doubt laudable or something to be encouraged. One author’s words on God, belief, doubt, and Scripture capture the sort of commitment of oneself to God and his Word that this view calls for:
If I truly believe in God, then God is more real to me than anything else I know, more real even than my faith in Him. For if anything else is more real to me than God Himself, then I am not believing, but doubting. I am real, my experiences are real, my faith is real, but God is more real. Otherwise I am not believing but doubting. Yet even in my doubting I do not doubt as unbelievers do. My doubts are real, my sins are real, my fears are real, my discouragements are real, my anxieties are real. But God is more real even than all of these dark shadows. I cast myself therefore on that which is most real, namely, God Himself. I take God and Jesus Christ His Son as the starting point of all my thinking. For this is faith. To ignore God and take my own experience as my starting point would be doubting. (Edward F. Hills, Believing Bible Study 3 ed. [Des Moines: The Christian Research Press, 1991], 56.)
As John Calvin observed, the Scriptures are the spiritual eyeglasses which enable our sin-blinded minds to see aright the revelation which God makes of Himself in nature. Also, the Scriptures are the key which unlocks the mysteries of history and reveals to us God’s plan. And finally, the Scriptures are that pure well of divine truth to which the preachers of the Gospel must continually repair and fill their silver pitchers. The Scriptures, therefore, are the foundation of faith. In them alone God’s revelation of Himself is found unobscured by human error. (Ibid., 4.)
Early in the text, while offering support for her idea that asking doubt-born questions about one’s faith, “challenging a belief system” one may never have seriously examined (17), is something laudable that she believes can result in a “strengthened” faith (18), Sullivan points to 1 Thessalonians 5:21, Acts 17:11, and Colossians 2:8, asserting that in these verses Paul “encouraged people to think outside their comfort zone and ask questions” (21). Interestingly, the theme uniting all these verses is that one’s investigations and question-asking, one’s every thought, must be directed by the truth that is Christ, the truth that comes to believers through the God-breathed words of Scripture (see also 2 Corinthians 10:5). This doesn’t look like encouragement to seek answers to doubt-prompted questions from sources outside Scripture (rational reflection on “religiously neutral” premises, scientific or historical investigation, reflection on one’s life experiences and exploration of one’s feelings, and so on). Instead, it look like something more in line with Hills’s perspective (just quoted): a call to bring one’s thoughts and feelings into conformity with Scripture by investigating what Scripture says in answer to one’s questions and committing oneself to treat what one finds, and the God who lies behind it, as “more real” than anything else, bringing one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions as much into conformity with Scripture as one can.
As I’ve noted, the (for want of a better identifier) hermeneutical side of Permission to Doubt “is often troubling.” Sullivan adopts what is a pretty standard strategy in our day (perhaps a good reason to focus most of one’s reading on books not written in our day). First, she suggests that the only beliefs about what Scripture teaches that are essential, that matter enough to merit resolute commitment, are those directly related to salvation, those that are “salvific” (93). She then maintains that such essentials are “few,” that nonessentials (or “gray areas”) are many, and that we should all just get along and “celebrate” our doctrinal “diversity” (92-4). If one wishes to make one’s living speaking to groups of Christians with varying viewpoints, or writing books to be read by the same, this Christian version of the “coexist” bumper sticker (you know, the one where each letter of the word “coexist” is the symbol for a different religion) is no doubt good success strategy. But are we really to believe that the God who inspired and preserved for our use this large collection-of-books book, this Bible that many Christians think it is a big deal to read through once in a year, only considers essential such content as he could have fit into some gospel tracts or a volume of Cliffs Notes? When humans take it upon themselves to create this sort of “canon [of essentials] within the canon [of mostly nonessentials],” humble submission to God’s words does not appear to be what’s going on. Softening one’s stance on the clarity and sufficiency of God’s words in order to more easily and agreeably accept and even celebrate the diverse opinions of fallen human beings does not strike me as quite so laudable or humble as some think. But, then, this is only my opinion.
Naturally enough (I almost said, “Naturalistically enough”), Sullivan sees interpretation of the Genesis creation account as one of the nonessentials, bringing up the popular assertion that “in the Genesis account, the word yom, which is Hebrew for the word day, can refer to an age of time or a literal twenty-four-hour period. Both uses of the word are legitimate” (94). Really? While both yom and the English “day,” as Sullivan and others recognize, have a range of meanings in various contexts, this reality does not permit one (as Sullivan assumes) to choose whatever meaning in the range one wishes in any particular context. Is imposing the “age” (“long time period” or “indefinite time period”) reading of yom (“day”) permissible in the context of the Genesis creation account? Biblical Creationists say no, and I remain persuaded that all persons not set on trying to make the Bible fit with secular scientific theories should agree. You may disagree, but don’t ask or expect persons convinced that Scripture speaks clearly on the topic to “celebrate” your contrary viewpoint because in this case, so you say, what God says through Scripture is “nonessential.”
I won’t rehearse arguments about the use of yom with ordinal (creation days 2 through 6) versus ordinal (creation day 1) numbers (if you’d care to review them, see Jonathan Sarfati’s Refuting Compromise [Green Forest: Master Books, 2004], 76-8). I also won’t dwell on the question of how a God-breathed Exodus 20:8-11 fits with a “days as long ages” reading of the Genesis creation account (or with other alternative, non-historical readings of that account). Instead, I’d like to take readers through a thought experiment. Open your Bible to the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1:1-31). (I prefer the King James or New King James, but I’m not familiar with any translation that alters the implications of this exercise.) Read through the account, changing the label of each “day” there from “day” to the following vague locution that captures as much as possible of the semantic range of the word as it is used in various contexts: “time period.” For example, read verse 5 of the King James account as follows: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first [time period].” After you’ve read through the passage as modified, proceed to the next paragraph of this review.
Now, setting aside any knowledge you might have of currently-dominant scientific theories about the origin of earth and the creatures that inhabit it (and related efforts to assign ages to rocks and fossils using decay rates of various isotopes or the like), forgetting what views your peer group or family or favorite Christian leaders happen to promote, and going to the text only with such awareness of the world as you know the original recipients of this inspired account must have had, ask yourself: What “time period” is referred to in this context? Note the “evenings” and “mornings” with each numbered day, for example. Are “long age” days plausible here? I can see no legitimate, honest way to take “time period” here to mean anything but a time period of “ordinary day” length. The “well, yom here could mean long periods of time” argument is impossible to take seriously if one wishes to honor the text as God wrote it.
The “diversity” of opinion on this issue, therefore, does not look to me like something Bible-believers should “celebrate.” Nor does this subject seem “clearly gray” (92). By the way, when Sullivan identifies issues such as this, issues that she believes are nonessential and uncertain, as “clearly gray,” she claims the very sort of “black and white” certitude that she condemns others for claiming (Ibid.). Were Sullivan to speak consistently, she could only speak of “seemingly gray” or “potentially gray” areas. “Personally, I’m still not sure about this subject” would be still more exact, but such a statement would not allow Sullivan to condemn as closed-minded (167) those who see as “black and white” (requiring resolute commitment) issues she considers “gray” (permitting freedom to adopt or not adopt a variety of equally good or equally bad viewpoints). This seems to go beyond permission to doubt by making doubt a requirement: If you don’t doubt the Genesis creation account as written (or doubt the host of other doctrines Sullivan thinks you should be uncertain about), or if you see something amiss when others doubt it (or them), you merit condemnation.
Some, of course, evade the creation account’s literal meaning in other ways, such as by making the account an instructive “literary framework” or even a “myth” meant to communicate something “true but not historically literal.” These evasions allow yom to be understood as context requires while the passage as a whole is treated as a story Christians needn’t consider in their assessment of secular scientific theories. I’ve yet to see a good argument that those who received and believed Exodus 20:8-11, and sought to obey it through literal observance of a weekly sabbath, could have understood the Genesis creation account as something other than literal history (prefacing more literal history running seamlessly through the rest of Genesis and into Exodus), but at least these alternative readings do not require unnatural insertion of weird meanings into the “time periods” of Genesis 1. (Though Sullivan brings up the yom argument when discussing the Genesis creation account, she does show a willingness to treat stories that Genesis appears to present as straightforward history, in the middle of an ongoing this-really-happened narrative, as something other than what they appear, suggesting, for instance, that she doesn’t care “Whether one takes…literally or not” the Tower of Babel narrative .) Obsessing on the idea that “the Bible was never intended to be a science book” (162) misses the point. If the Bible is intended as an understandable communication, and if truths it communicates have relevance to scientific questions, then Bible-believers are obligated to let those truths guide their approach to the various claims made by scientists and stories told in the name of “science.”
But, you point out, there are fine scholars and brilliant thinkers who endorse each of the alternative interpretations of the Genesis creation account. Doesn’t that mean we should keep our minds open and willing to accept these interpretations, as Sullivan advises? Well, you must make your own judgment, of course. If you think that the opinion of a fine scholar and brilliant thinker, who happens to be a sinful created being just like yourself, makes the words of God less clear (Genesis 3:1), by all means “keep an open mind.” To my eye, though, the passage says what it says, and I can see no good, God-honoring reason to force upon it an interpretation no original recipient would have taken seriously. What professed authority, Scripture or the “fine scholar and brilliant thinker,” will you treat as ultimate?
This way of thinking, of course, is anathema to “celebrate diversity” sorts like Sullivan. (Am I extreme to suggest that Bible-believers should respond in kind, treating Sullivan’s “celebrate diversity” attitude as anathema?) She writes: “More than one Christian has earned the label [close-minded], generally because they are white-knuckle-clinging to an opinion about some interpretation of the Bible. Whether it’s a problem with hairstyles, dress codes, marriage and divorce, or even evolution, some believers have completely forgotten about grace and the fact that they may not have a corner on all absolute truth. God is, after all, a bit outside our human understanding” (167). The conclusion of this statement shows a fundamental confusion. The question is not whether God is beyond human understanding, but whether God’s inspired Word is. If it is, it has failed as the God-to-his-people communication it was intended to be. If Scripture is not beyond human understanding, then persons who stand faithfully by what they understand the Bible to clearly teach—even while “broad-minded” sorts like Sullivan object and accuse them of close-mindedness, arrogance, or “white-knuckle-clinging”—appear to me more true to the biblical model of faith than Sullivan’s doctrinal minimalism and “celebrate diversity” dismissiveness. (How persons who trust what Scripture says are supposed to have “forgotten about” a “grace” that Sullivan thinks she remembers is unclear. It is also interesting that, in spite of Scripture’s fairly prominent coverage of marriage and divorce—in directives, principles, and instructive true stories—Sullivan apparently thinks marriage-and-divorce guidance in Scripture is no more clear than guidance concerning hairstyles and dress codes. Her desire to limit Scripture’s applicability to a very narrow set of what she personally deems “essential” is…stunning.)
Sullivan also remains noncommittal on other issues, such as whether those who reject Christ can expect eternal punishment or annihilation (79). Apparently, it is her belief that if professing Christians disagree about something, then it must be the case that the issue in question is “not fully clear,” which implies one should not “come down hard” for a given position, since such lacks “intellectual integrity” (Ibid.). If disagreement among fallen humans is indeed proof that God’s words on a subject are unclear, then this might be a sensible way to think. Alas, the “if” in this “if…then” seems quite unlikely given all that Scripture has to say about fallen humans.
Sullivan’s attitude toward Scripture, and toward Christians who believe it clearer and more broadly authoritative than she does, makes Permission to Doubt a book every Bible-believer should grant themselves permission to avoid. Better resources are plentiful. I commend them to you.